SpaceX, Elon Musk’s dream space carrier company, is directly helping the Ukrainian army with satellite images, and Russia considers it to be an open provocation
A few weeks ago, the maverick innovator, Elon Musk, had challenged the Russian president Vladimir Putin to a one-on-one duel. It didn’t evoke any response from Putin, but that hasn’t stopped Musk from charging straight into the Ukraine war. SpaceX, his space transportation company that launches satellites, are directly helping the Ukrainian army with satellite images that pinpoint Russian positions, thus enabling them to guide their guerrilla attacks with greater accuracy. Low Earth Orbiting (LEO) SpaceX satellites are also helping in maintaining Internet communications when the traditional networks have been hit by the conflict.
Reportedly, Starlink terminals receive internet from SpaceX’s 2000 satellites to allow users to get online even if their service has been disconnected. Research firm, GlobalData’s FutureTech Series report, ‘Internet from Sky: Can LEO Satellites Transform the Future of Connectivity?’, reveals that the growing deployment of a large group of LEOs, often dubbed ‘LEO mega constellations’, could herald the next era of connectivity with their potential to address the gaps in internet adoption and infrastructure access in remote areas that are not served by terrestrial and traditional satellite networks.
LEOs are touted to play a key role in connecting millions of IoT-backed devices and sensors, managing the boom in internet users and minimizing the digital divide to strengthen community resilience. At present, LEO projects such as Amazon’s Kuiper, SpaceX’s Starlink and OneWeb are aiming to bridge the digital divide and offer internet services with low latency and high-speed broadband connectivity to remote and unserved communities globally.
An act of aggression
Russia considers Musk’s act as an open provocation. Dmitry Rogozin, the head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, called Starlink’s activities interference. “When Russia implements its highest national interests on the territory of Ukraine, Elon Musk appears with his Starlink, which was previously declared purely civilian,” he said on state-funded Russian broadcaster RT. Musk’s response was as laconic as ever. “Ukraine civilian Internet was experiencing strange outages – bad weather perhaps? – so SpaceX is helping fix it,” he tweeted.
British media have reported that Ukraine’s army is making very successful use of Starlink for drone attacks on Russian tanks and positions. The Daily Telegraph reported that Starlink is of particular military significance in areas where the infrastructure is weak and there is no internet connection. According to The Telegraph, the aerial reconnaissance unit Aerorozvidka is using Starlink to monitor and coordinate unmanned aerial vehicles, enabling soldiers to fire anti-tank weapons with targeted precision. Only the system’s high data rates can provide the stable communication required.
Avoiding geolocation ducking missiles
Musk is also providing the Ukrainians with a user manual on how to avoid being detected and destroyed by Russian missiles. With Russia trying to target and destroy Ukrainian infrastructure, including power and the internet, the connection will likely be even more important in the coming weeks and months. This, of course, also means that Starlink reception dishes, which are not exactly inconspicuous, will be targets for Russian troops.
The biggest danger, however, is that the reception equipment can be geolocated while in operation. Shortly after the first terminals were delivered in early March, Musk tweeted: “Turn on Starlink only when needed and place the antenna as far away from people as possible.” Russians reportedly used the signals emitted from a satellite phone to target and kill Chechen president Dzhokhar Dudayev. Russia has “decades of experience” executing such attacks. In addition to targeted attacks, Russia is apparently also trying to use jammers to block internet access from space. But SpaceX says it already has a solution: on Twitter, Musk wrote that a new software update lowers power consumption and can bypass jamming transmitters.
Another US satellite imaging company Maxar is also quite active in Ukraine. As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, Maxar’s detailed eye-in-the-sky images of military movements on the ground being passed to media – including a 40-mile convoy headed for Kyiv. There are a number of commercial satellite companies providing products not only to paying customers but also publicly publishing imagery of selected areas.
Headquartered in Colorado, US, Maxar’shistory traces back to the 1960s on its website though its current incarnation’s roots lie in Worldview Imaging Corporation, aka DigitalGlobe – a name probably familiar to anyone who’s spent an idle hour poring over Google Earth’s satellite imagery. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, DigitalGlobe forged close links with the US government, being licensed to launch commercial image-gathering satellites – technology that had previously been dominated by the world’s militaries. Contracts in the hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars reportedly followed. The company reported revenues of $1.72bn for FY2020 and a net income of $303m. The year before, it made $46m on revenues of $1.77bn.
The company’s satellite imagery has been regularly cited by journalists covering the Russian invasion of Ukraine, TheEconomist’s defence editor, as well as other news brands such as US TV network CNN, financial newswire Reuters, and more. Given the success of satellite images in this war, it surely looks like more countries will come to depend on it even in peacetime.